Campus Life the secret lives of researchers

50 minutes of anxiety

Class from the lecturer’s point of view

Sitting in class, 50 minutes always seemed like a lifetime. I never thought it could feel longer after leaving undergrad.

Boy, was I wrong.

Preparing a lecture — finding the content, making it look nice, and figuring out how to explain it clearly — makes those 50 minutes seem eons long. Teaching my first full lecture gave me a newfound respect for the professors who do this two or three times a week and a mild sense of terror at the prospect that I may one day be in that position!

The class I am TAing, biological oceanography, gave me the opportunity to teach a lecture about the large organisms in the ocean — fish, whales, sharks, octopi, all of it. It’s a broad topic, so my first task was to decide how I wanted to structure my talk. I wanted to throw in a little physiology; a decent amount of information on trophic cascades, nutrient cycling, and turbulence as the broad scale phenomena that make these large creatures important; some fisheries; some habitat information and fish adaptations to those habitats; and at least a little marine reserve information. And while I knew I had too much information to cover already, the slides seemed dauntingly empty as I made the skeletal outline.

I dove in and started fleshing out slides with figures from my favorite papers. I searched for new data that showed the current relevance of these topics. I found great images and new graphs to clearly illustrate the concepts. I marked up the slides with boxes and labels so I could easily walk students through complex experiments.

I looked at my slides again and realized I had only prepared 15 thus far. White boxes glared at me in Powerpoint, a reminder of all the holes left in my presentation.

I dove in again, filling in one slide at a time, popping back up to the surface occasionally to re-arrange slides and add transitions. Slowly, so slowly, the lecture started to take on a structure and looked closer to full than empty. I eventually filled 25 slides and started the process of going through my slides in order and running through the content I would be delivering orally. As I did this, I found more gaps and remembered new papers that would be great to introduce. Hours later, I made it to the end.

Fairly pleased with this, I sent the draft slides to the professor of the class and started preparing a class activity. I remembered my lab-mate had taught a class for fourth graders and used a costume kit wherein students dressed up another student as a fish with custom adaptations for different zones. Phew, I thought, an easy activity I can add. I would only need an extra 20 minutes or so to run through the costumes to make sure the activity went flawlessly. My heartfelt thanks still go out to the long-graduated student who originally made those costumes.

Then came the edits. And last, the nervousness the night before, when the content kept running through my head, and I couldn’t stop questioning whether I had chosen the best example for this slide, or whether I was prepared with the clearest explanation. By the time the lecture came around, it had consumed my life for the better part of a week.

I think the lecture went well, but this experience also made me realize how hard it is to assess how it went. Students seemed engaged — they offered up information they knew on the topic during class, they participated in my fish costume activity, and they didn’t fall asleep. I was glad I had prepared so thoroughly, because I was confident and had ready explanations for most every question they threw at me.

But in the end, I’m still impressed by the professors who do this multiple times a week and terrified to someday (hopefully) join their ranks. It’s hard — really hard — work!